Monday, July 25, 2011

New Skies

Looking up at 'the sky', now--having hurtled through it in aluminum cylinders, and glided through it on my own wing 2,000 feet above pine-tops--I separate it into layers. The near sky contains those big, puffy clouds, the ones you know from punching through them in a jetliner. They're just a few thousand feet up; skydivers drop through them from 12,000 feet or so, whooping with joy. These clouds are recent evaporates, just up from the Earth; they derive from snowpacks, or high alpine lakes, or even from the sea surface, and I imagine that they carry a faint taste of their origins. These are close and recent clouds.

There is a more distant layer, though, far above these hurried bulbs; stratospheric clouds, wisps, paintbrush strokes. The scientific terminology of these various layers, I've learned, is completely unsystematic, a hodge-podge, and so no wonder I ignored its nonsense for so long.’ Altostratus’, some are, ‘cirrostratus’ others, but the terminology doesn't connect these forms in any coherent way. So I forget that terminology.

There are, for me, the lower clouds, the puffballs that hurry along and that planes ascend and descend through with the delicous feeling, as you look out the airplane window, of power, as you feel the pilot touch up throttle and the plane, as ever, powers through and ascends and then finally lands with the softest bump.

High above these distractions, though, are the lower-stratosphere clouds, 20,000 and more feet up, five miles and more up. When I see these narrow washes I think, "That's where I'm going." And even these, I realize, are just waypoints, at least for those with a larger vision, a vision of human movement out from Earth. These are the real heavenly gates, the last substantial concentrations of Earth matter before one enters space and the larger universe beyond.

I won't be going that far, though; time and money see to it that space, the universe, are out of reach. No, the farthest I can move from the surface that we humans have felt so connected to, for so many million years and so artificially, is that ghostly brushing well up beyond the low puffs. Fifty thousand feet is what my time and money can afford. So be it.

Those high strokes are acres of ice crystals, blown fast in great, three-dimensional herds. They move fast, hundreds of miles an hour, sheets and waves of them, though you can't tell it from the ground. 'Just clouds' people might say, looking back to their cellphones.

And beyond these high lines, of course, is the cloudless sky, where there is great silence and thinness, and the gasses that have supported the human frame for millions of years become so scarce as to preclude our life there without special inventions; pressure suits or capsules that today we build but that, I believe, will eventually be grown like plants.

Up there, just a few miles away, in fact, the atmosphere thins to the point of absence that we call 'space'. During the day, from sea level, this absence is a thin blue, though richer and deeper if you tilt your head back and look straight up. I've seen it from closer up, though, and it is astounding that just ten thousand feet of altitude, as on a mountain-top, that richer color is not blue but a seemingly lifeless, electric blue-black. You imagine, on a mountain-top during the day, that you might almost see stars. You cannot, but only a few hours makes the difference, and then the stars wink into sight as the sliver of Earth that you ride upon revolves away from the Sun.

Illusion is stacked upon illusion; that stratosphere is no sterile void, but home to many species of freely-floating, single-celled life forms. Some have been blasted into the stratosphere by volcanic eruptions; others, according to some scientists, are visitors from space, life forms the Earth picks up as it moves through great clouds of organic, cosmic debris. Whatever the case, there is life up there in those highest brushstrokes, and some of it is built from the same DNA that builds our own bodies.

So, above the lower puffs are the icy swaths, and beyond them things thin to space. Two hundred miles up--Portland to Seattle, London to Paris--there is the end of the Earth's gaseous bubble, and a new environment entirely begins. It is cold in shade, 200 below, and hot in the sun, 200 above. There is oxygen here, but not nearly enough to breathe, the atoms fly free and separate, and not far from the rind of the Earth even that gas fails almost entirely; and not far from that barrier commences interstellar space, where the is little of anything at all for vast--but not incalculable--distances. Those blanks on the map did not matter in the past and they will not matter in the future. What will matter will be the rich places between these opennesses, and we discover them now at a rate of one new planet a week, orbiting distant, alien stars. As a species, we'll either go to these places, or perish here in our cradle, either by our own hand or by one of the multitude of threats to Earth life, from comets to supervolcanism. The choice is ours.

Fifty thousand feet! My target. Fifty thousand feet! Evenings and weekends, I build the equipment that will support me there. Before long I will be up there, as far from the surface of Earth as I can get. I know I will reach up, extend an arm, before my supplies run low and I will be forced to return to Earth.

(c) 2011 Cameron M. Smith

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